Last night, the Board of Supervisors adopted Prince William County’s FY2021 Budget. It is a far cry from the ambitious set of priorities we were presented with back in February, before the onset of COVID-19, and it is not perfect. We had to cut back on a host of investments which would have allowed us to begin playing catch up with our schools, public safety personnel, and infrastructure.
At the same time, we managed to prioritize a wide range of much-needed (and long overdue) investments in our community services, our social services, and some of our frontline responders, including public health nurses. We were also able to fulfill the promise made by the previous Board to make whole thousands of county employees whose work had been historically undervalued; many of whom are responsible for helping to shepherd us through this very crisis. All with a flat real estate tax rate. Here are some of the realities with which the County was faced with this year:
Need to Strengthen Human Services
- Community Services Investment vs. Benefit Ratio: Properly funding at the local level allows us to better leverage state and federal resources. $22.5M in local dollars unlocks $40.8M in outside funding, providing $63.3M in total benefits to County residents.
- That ratio is even higher for Social Services: $49M dollars in County expenditures yields over $480M in benefits through combined local, state, and federal programs, and 94% of local dollars spent on Social Services are directly applied to benefits supporting our most vulnerable families.
- As you listen to the different philosophies held by members of the Board, note that average life expectancy can be up to 17 years shorter in the eastern part of the County than the western. When I am fighting for safety net services, I am fighting for the very lives of some County residents.
- Both Social and Community Services departments had already reached their efficiency threshold in terms of manpower to productivity long ago, and are further overwhelmed with this pandemic.
- We are housing the unsheltered, still providing services to a growing population of those who need it, and continue to meet the needs of our disabled and aging communities.
Financial Obligations of County Government & Pandemic Response
- $11.4M in increased mandatory spending to meet local, state, and interjurisdictional obligations, including $181k more to fund 45-day early voting
- $2.6M to meet critical needs in terms of security and criminal justice services which will save the County money in the long run (Technology Modernization & PD Supplement), but requires investment to ramp up
- Current budget barely keeps up with the cost of inflation (2%), and historic underfunding of critical unmet needs have only exacerbated costs to catch up
- Annual obligation to community partners magnified by COVID-19 response, to include working with partners to develop a Prince William Disaster Relief Fund and Community Feeding Task Force
- Shoring up the business relief and recovery efforts spearheaded by County’s Economic Development and Tourism departments, including creation of a $1.5M small business fund
- Additional efforts to assist families and businesses in weathering this crisis, also ensuring that recovery is equitable and positions us a best as possible to bounce back quickly
Longstanding Pay Disparities
- A Classification & Compensation study revealed pay disparities within Prince William County government; long-standing inequities across several demographics. Based on the findings, the prior Board passed a two-phased approach to address inequities. Phase I occurred in FY20.
- The CXO recommended delaying implementation of Phase II. I was among those fighting to make these employees whole. The affected staff includes 448 in the Community Services and Social Services departments, the same people processing applications for – and administering – the very services that our most vulnerable community members need to survive this pandemic. Another 230 are in public safety, and 27 in the Area on Aging.
While I supported a flat tax rate reflective of the economic realities faced by so many in our community, I am discontented that it once again puts on the back burner the full funding of our schools. Our educators continue to have the highest class sizes and lowest salaries in the region, and the raise they received last year was only the beginning of us trying to play catch up. Most years, the increase they receive barely keeps up with the increase of the cost of living in PWC. Close to 30% – if not more – of PWCS staff have left the school division nearly every year in recent years. That’s hundreds of employees, many of them teachers, and members of our community.
- The latest revision of the FY21 budget reflects that in FY20, the school system will have to absorb at least $1.4M in revenue loss from the County and as much as $10M in lost sales tax revenue from the state.
- School division will also have to spend $23M additional this year due to natural growth, including $17.6M to accommodate the projected 953 additional students who will have enrolled in the school system since the last time the budget was adopted.
- The additional school funding the County could provide at the flat tax rate is only $18M, which will be immediately eclipsed by the increase in funding needed for the new students, as well as by start-up costs for Potomac Shores Middle School, the 13th High School, and the Debt Service for these and other projects.
- The School Division continues to feed thousands (sometimes in excess of 10,000) school-aged children a day.
- Any savings from closed facilities are being poured into pandemic response:
- Schools have implemented new strategies and content around distance services for students facing mental health, behavioral health and other health issues.
- The school system is continuing to incorporate guidance from the state to better implement distance learning, and accommodate student populations who have non-traditional needs, such as those with IEPs. In the meantime, teachers are offering a variety of non-graded learning opportunities.
- Schools have reprogrammed as many of their own employees as possible to maximize efficiency and service delivery.
- Approximately $6M was allocated to provide laptops to students, starting at the high school level.
- Other School Budget highlights include $48k for Youth Mental Health First Aid Training, $1.25M for Virtual High School, $50k for Distance Learning, over $3M to continue to support Special Education programs, and over $8M in resources for economically-disadvantaged students and their families.
Assessments & Historic Tax Data
- Despite popular talking points, this was not largest tax increase in County history – 2008 (during the last financial crisis) and 2015 had larger increases in overall tax bills. It is also notable that the only year in which a rate decreased occurred was in FY2016 (2015) – when the prior Board of Supervisors was up for election.
- The idea that assessments and tax burden have outstretched county population growth is cherry picking. A wide variety of factors contributes to the increase in assessments year-over-year, such as housing availability, the types of loans banks are providing, and regional conditions. Most notably, the Amazon HQ2 announcement last year has, and will continue to, be a driver.
- An inaccurate chart showing tax bills vs. population growth was being circulated on social media. I have created a more accurate chart, which you will find at the bottom of this post.
- County assessments were conducted before “stay at home” orders were issued. However, a bright spot in all of this is that is has not hurt real estate values so far, and sales remain brisk. A recent National Association of Realtors article stated: “While sales have declined, home prices are still solidly strong. The median existing-home price for all housing types in March was $280,600, up 8.0% from March 2019 ($259,700), as prices increased in every region.”
- In Prince William, March and April sale prices increased nearly 10% increase over 2019.
- Still, concern about home values falling as a result of the crisis is valid. Should that occur, I’d encourage you to contact our Real Estate Appeals Office, where you can ask for your home to be re-assessed. June 1 is the last day to file an appeal.
My colleagues and I on the Board will monitor and review the County budget quarterly, making adjustments as necessary in light of both the continued impacts of COVID-19 as well as any aid from the state and federal governments. Thank you to everyone who participated in this year’s budget season, especially my very patient and flexible Budget Committee members. This is one we’ll definitely remember for years to come.